Morocco signed an agreement with the United Nations on February 12 defining the legal status of UN troops in disputed western Sahara after months of delay. The UN Security Council then voted unanimously to extend the UN mission’s mandate until March 31. This modest concession by Rabat - said to have been extracted as a result of `pressure’ from the world body - is being touted as evidence of a international new resolve to force a solution of the long standing dispute.
Five months ago the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, proposed a package of measures to surmount the last hurdles to a referendum on the territory’s future, which should have been held in 1992. The Polisario Front, which claims an independent state in the area, accepted the package in full. But Rabat, which has de facto control of the territory, once again raised petty objections. The Security Council then threatened last January not to renew the UN peacekeeping force beyond February 11, and Rabat caved in. The force, known as `Minurso’, installed in the territory to monitor the ceasefire agreed between Polisario and Morocco eight years ago, has shielded government forces from guerrilla attacks throughout this period. And the UN is claiming to have extracted important concessions from the Moroccans simply by threatening to pull out its peacekeeping mission. But the claim is fraudulent and cynical. The Sahrawis - who have been fighting for the right of self-determination for many years - can only see this charade, quite justifiably, as the latest of many cynical exercises in futility, which serve to paralyse their armed struggle, while failing to force the Moroccans either to negotiate directly or to allow the referendum they would prefer to be held. The UN took up the Sahrawi issue as one of decolonisation as long ago as 1964. To exploit international interest in their cause, the Sahrawis forged an indigenous movement for independence from Spanish control in 1967, which they turned into a modern guerrilla group, the Polisairo Front, in 1973. And in 1966, the world body began to issue resolution after resolution affirming the Sahrawis’ right of self-determination. But the resolutions, which have piled up since 1966, have not been implemented, and, in any case, failed to deter Morocco and Mauritania from marching into the territory after Spain’s withdrawal in 1976. It was Polisario, not the UN, which forced Mauritania to drop its claim to the territory and instead recognise Sahrawi sovereignty. It was also the Front, not the UN resolutions, which fought the Moroccan forces to a stand-still. And it was the world body that forced the Sahrawis into the trap of a false peace process based on a cease-fire and the promise of a referendum which it has no intention of enforcing. The Sahrawis are recognised by more than 60 governments and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) but have no friends on the UN Security Council, which has been taken hostage by Uncle Sam - a staunch ally of Morocco. The Europeans also back Rabat, as do Arab states with the notable exception of Algeria, where the Sahrawi guerrillas and government (SADR) are based. It is common knowledge that Rabat has no intention of giving up the territory, which is rich in phosphates. The minister of finance and economics, Fathu Allahi, said in a newspaper interview on February 3 that Morocco would never give up Western Sahara and had plans for exploiting the rich phosphate deposits in the north and south of the territory. But that is not the only reason that Morocco is determined to keep the area. The Western Sahara issue arouses strong patriotic feelings in Morocco, which both the government and the opposition parties are determined to exploit. A coalition of political parties, which held a joint conference in Rabat on February 7, for instance, announced that they were categorically opposed to any concessions by Morocco over the issue.
Meanwhile, the Sahrawi civilians who fled the territory when the Moroccans marched in are languishing in refugee camps in southern Algeria, barely surviving on humanitarian handouts. Their liberation movement has not seen combat for eight years. The Algerians who support them are themselves locked in a bitter civil war. The Sahrawis’ people is dire, and the Moroccans - with Arab, western and UN help - are moving in for the kill. The countries that are directly and indirectly involved in the betrayal of the Palestinians’ cause and the destruction of Iraq are not likely to be troubled by a conspiracy to see off Sahrawi aspirations. The Sahrawi issue should be seen as a Muslim cause, although its principal enemy is a king who calls himself `amir al-mu’mineen.’ (‘Leader of the Faithfuls’). The fact that Sahrawi leaders, who used to be marxists, now profess to believe in `liberal democracy’ and not Islamic activism, should not prevent other Muslims from rallying to their cause.
Muslimedia: March 16-31, 1999